For everyone who has Alzheimer’s — some 5.4 million persons in the United States alone — there’s a related victim: the caregiver. Whether it is a spouse, child, relative or friend, taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s can lead to loneliness, exhaustion, stress, and depression.
A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles, finds that practicing yoga each day can improve cognitive functioning and lower levels of depression for caregivers.
There’s an added benefit: A reduction in stress-induced cellular aging, reports Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor of psychiatry at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
“We know that chronic stress places caregivers at a higher risk for developing depression,” she said. “On average, the incidence and prevalence of clinical depression in family dementia caregivers approaches 50 percent. Caregivers are also twice as likely to report high levels of emotional distress.”
While medication can improve depression, many caregivers may be opposed to the use of medication because of the associated costs and possible side effects. That consideration motivated Lavretsky and her colleagues to test a mind-body intervention for stress reduction.
The researchers recruited 49 people who were taking care of relatives with dementia. Their ages ranged from 45 to 91 years old and included 36 adult children and 13 spouses. The participants were put into two groups. The meditation group was taught a brief, 12-minute yogic practice that included an ancient chanting meditation, Kirtan Kriya, which was performed every day at the same time for eight weeks.
The other group was asked to relax in a quiet place with their eyes closed while listening to instrumental music on a relaxation CD, also for 12 minutes every day at the same time for eight weeks.
At the end of the eight weeks the researchers found that the meditation group showed significantly lower levels of depression, as well as a greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning, compared with the relaxation group.
In the meditation group, 65 percent showed a 50 percent improvement on a depression rating scale, and 52 percent of the group showed a 50 percent improvement on a mental health score. This compared to a 31 percent depression improvement and a 19 percent mental health improvement for the relaxation group.
The researchers also found that meditation increased telomerase activity, which slowed cellular aging. Telomerase is an enzyme that maintains the DNA at the ends of our chromosomes, known as telomeres, which are associated with a host of health risks and diseases and are regulated, in part, by psychological stress.
In the absence of telomerase activity, every time our cells divide, our telomeres get shorter and shorter, until eventually, they become so short the cells die. If high telomerase can be maintained or promoted, though, it will likely promote improvement in telomere maintenance and immune cell longevity, the researchers note.
In the study, the meditation group showed a 43 percent improvement in telomerase activity compared with 3.7 percent in the relaxation group.
The results were “striking,” according to Lavretsky, given the improvements that were shown in mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity over eight weeks at just 12 minutes a day.
“We found that the effects on cognitive and mental functioning and telomerase activity were specific to the Kirtan Kriya,” she said. “Because Kirtan Kriya had several elements of using chanting, mudras (finger poses) and visualization, there was a ‘brain fitness’ effect in addition to stress-reduction that contributed to the overall effect of the meditation.”
Lavretsky’s report appears in the current online edition of the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.